A house has been going up in a lot across the street from me over the past few weeks.
The lot had been vacant since shortly after Hurricane Katrina, when the London Avenue Canal levee broke just a few feet away. The Indian family that lived there before the great flood decided, like thousands of others in south Louisiana, to turn their property over to the Road Home program instead of staying to rebuild.
For nine years the lot sat empty, while some public agency paid to have the grass cut periodically. It was finally sold, along with the one next to it, in a New Orleans Redevelopment Authority auction last November.
Walking outside each morning, I’ve been greeted by different sounds coming from the work site. I don’t mean the sounds of the construction itself, though there’s definitely that. It’s the sound of music.
You can always count on a construction crew to bring music, but the days of the simple old boombox seem to be gone. Now there are specially made job site radios, big sturdy boxes with an exoskeleton that looks like a roll-cage structure for an Indianapolis 500 racer. They’re sold under the brand names of the same companies that make power tools: Ryobi, Milwaukee, Makita, DeWalt and others.
Though I can hear only two languages coming from the workers across the street, English and Spanish, the musical choices are more diverse. The genre being played at the job site changes every few days, depending on who’s working. Sometimes it’s Latin music, at other times soul. There’s contemporary country and mainstream pop.
I think I might be able to get to the point where I actually could figure out what kind of work is being done based on the music I’m hearing — general framing, concrete pouring, air conditioning and so on. Job-skill specialization seems to be stratified along ethnic lines, and the music choices reflect that.
What I’m hearing from across the street these days is probably a modern analog to what New Orleans was like in pre-electronic times.
On the streets of the city back then, you would have heard a variety of languages besides English: French, Spanish, Italian, Chinese and maybe even Yiddish. Among the Italian immigrants here, you could have heard the Sicilian dialect as well as the language of the Arbreshe people, a group of Italians with deep Albanian roots.
Spoken English here probably broke down into several intonations as well, from an Irish brogue to the patois of former African slaves and their descendants.
We go in cycles. After those languages I mentioned were mostly lost as New Orleans evolved into an English-only community (with an occasional perfunctory nod to its French history) in the previous century, Cuban immigrants fleeing the Castro regime flooded into the city, once again giving life to the use of Spanish here. Later, Vietnamese, leaving another Communist country, brought their language and customs as well.
And since Katrina, we’ve seen another influx of Latino language and culture, with in my estimation a much deeper impact on the city than the arrival of Cuban refugees a generation ago.
We’ve entered that time of year when we celebrate America and its history. A couple of weekends ago was Armed Forces Day; Monday was Memorial Day. Flag Day and the Fourth of July are just ahead.
We commemorate our freedom and the military men and women who defend it. But we also celebrate the fact that various strands of cultures from around the world have been woven together to create the unique nation we live in today.
Dennis Persica’s email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.